Not a Chore! Seven Guidelines for Journaling

Blank Journal

Many people resist journaling because it feels like a chore, like an essay test, or like a duty they “should do.” I can’t tell you how many times people respond to my own testimony about journaling by saying, “I know I should journal, but I just can’t get into it.” I suggest we re-frame journaling as a valuable tool for paying attention to our inner lives, our souls. A journal is not a classroom assignment or a duty; it’s a powerful way to pay attention to your heart and mind.

A journal is more like a letter to God,

a way to focus in prayer,

a way to clear your head and process your thoughts.

A journal is like a great friend who listens on paper instead of in person.

A journal is “holy daydreaming” in ink.

A journal is a way of paying attention. Most of us lack the mental discipline to maintain focus on a consistent train of thought for a significant amount of time. Our thoughts wander, and we have to pull ourselves back to the subject time and again. Journaling keeps us engaged on a topic to the point where we gain new clarity and insight.

It takes a bit of practice to get over the “classroom syndrome” of thinking your journal has to meet a certain standard of excellence. There’s no one grading you. God especially isn’t interested in grades, any more than a parent would grade the spelling or grammar of a note from her kindergarten-age child. It’s all about the connection.

Let me get one thing out of the way: Should you use a computer or keep a notebook? I have read (though I cannot find the research reference—sorry) that there is a significant link between hand writing and heart connection. That intrigues me. I personally find the pace of writing by hand better matches the process of SoulShaping (my own word) than typing on a keyboard. I am quick to acknowledge, however, that the choice is yours. If you use a notebook, shy away from fancy leather-bound journals because they tend to make us think we’ve got be “neat and tidy” in our writing. And it’s often difficult to write in them because they don’t lie flat. I prefer an inexpensive spiral notebook with lined paper.

In previous posts I have written about the benefits of keeping a journal. Now I’d like to share some guidelines for journaling. There’s no right or wrong way to keep a journal.  The basic principle is: Does it help you better understand the Lord, yourself, and others?  Here are seven principles that can set you on the road to developing your own style:

Begin with a simple prayer.

My starting point is that my journal is a spiritual conversation with the Lord. Prayer affirms this at the outset. I use a simple prayer whenever I prepare to journal or to study or to work on a sermon, a blog or any other project. I open my hands, holding them palms up, and say, “Lord, give me what you want to give me in this time.” Trust the Holy Spirit to guide you. The Lord searches our hearts and directs us to the most important matters.

Work with feelings and perceptions.

The journal should not be a chronicle of dates and events.  The insights come from paying attention to how you felt and what you perceived about events and situations.

Trust your own insights.

If they are wrong, that will become apparent in the process of writing.  A proper sense of independence and personal authority is healthy.  After all, who, besides the Holy Spirit, is a better authority on yourself than you?

Anything goes.

Be completely free in your journal.  Write it for your eyes only, not to impress someone who may someday read it.  It is private; no one is looking over your shoulder.  You’re free to go with God over the landscape of your soul: to trudge along, to skip, to run, to roll. Draw, tell your story, write poetry, jot down phrases, record quotes, make charts, delve into memories… use whatever captures your mood and mind in that moment.

Be honest.

Don’t fool yourself with pious talk; if you feel lousy, say it.  We are free to be honest because as someone said, “The One who knows me best, loves me most.”  In honesty, we will see both the light and dark sides of our souls.  The point is to accept them and take God with us as we explore them.

There is a natural tendency to what I call “spiraling.”

This is my own term for going over the same ground again and again. The center of the spiral, the issue, may be the same, but our understanding of it is continually deepening and progressing like the widening loops of a spiral.

Discipline yourself to write positively.

The aim of the journal is to generate the energy to be an overcomer.  State the facts, record your negative feelings honestly, but then seek out the promise.

The Book of Proverbs says,

Above all else, guard your heart,
    for everything you do flows from it. (Proverbs 4:23).

Your journal is one of the most effective ways to guard your heart, to listen to the Lord, to pay attention to the movement of the Holy Spirit around you. Write on!

[Note that I have adapted these from an article I wrote called “Keeping A Personal Journal,” Leadership, Volume III, Number 1, Winter 1982, 156-57, and later published in my book SoulShaping: Taking Care of your spiritual life, Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1996, pages 72-76].

3 Personal Benefits of Journaling

Journal 1
Three of my earliest journals with my Bible open to Exodus 17:14

One of the first instructions God gave to Moses after the Exodus was “…write this on a scroll as something to be remembered…” (Exodus 17:14 NIV). Recalling the mighty acts of God was an essential element for sustaining the people’s vision of God. Just try to imagine where we’d be if Moses had neglected God’s command?

What about our own “holy histories?” Our spiritual journeys are too important to trust to memory alone. An invaluable tool for the preservation of God’s work and the application of God’s truth in our lives is a personal journal. To paraphrase a common proverb, “Weak ink is stronger than the best memory.”

A journal is like a spiritual diary. It is more than keeping a chronology of events characteristic of a traditional diary. Your spiritual journal is a record of things that happen to you or around you, with an emphasis on the responses of your heart, mind and soul. It’s a record of your prayers: of your “Yes” answered prayers, your still-waiting-for-God’s-answer prayers, and your honest wrestling with the prayers answered with “No.” It’s a place to reflect on your moods and your personal disciplines (or lack thereof) and what you plan to do about those. Your journal is the means to examine your temptations and failures, celebrate your personal victories, and record your biblical insights.

I think of my journal as a conversation with the Lord. You could say, in many ways, that your journal holds your prayers in ink.  In a future post I’ll share why I think paper and pen are important to the process and more effective than using a computer or tablet.

My own use of a personal journal began when I entered college and started keeping a notebook of insights gleaned from my personal Bible study. I prize those moments of illumination. The thrill of discovery is a gift from God. How is it that, when we pray for God to speak to us, and God does, we let that precious truth slip away like the tide erasing writing in the sand? Trust it to paper–not to memory. Over time, I began to include prayer requests and answers, problems and hurts, and hopes and plans for the future. Initially, writing came in surges, but it eventually became a consistent part of my quiet time and devotions. My encouragement is to begin where you are. You will discovers a pace that fits.

I’ve written about journaling for Leadership Journal and in my book SoulShaping. In future posts, I will share ministry benefits of keeping a spiritual journal and principles for maximizing your journaling. But let’s begin with three ways keeping a journal helps us.

Three Personal Benefits of Journaling

First, our journal gives us insight for our spiritual growth.

Our confidence as Jesus’ followers comes from knowing who we are in Christ. Trust and identity solidify when we pay attention to where we’ve been and where God is directing us. In his Confessions (a powerful illustration of journaling as a spiritual memoir), Augustine (an early church theologian and leader who lived from 354 – 430 AD) wrote, “I want to call back to mind my past impurities and the carnal corruptions of my soul, not because I love them, but so that I may love you, my God…that the bitterness may be replaced by the sweetness of you.” Augustine’s love for God grew as reviewed his life. He saw more clearly his spiritual condition and realized, in awe, God’s hand at work.

As we reflect on our spiritual pilgrimage, we gain understanding of the dynamics of our spiritual lives: the obstacles, the predictable crises, the doubts, and the means of grace God provides to overcome these. The preservation of these insights helps us grow in spiritual maturity. This is the practical out-working of Hebrews 5:11-14 (New Living Translation)

11 There is much more we would like to say about this, but it is difficult to explain, especially since you are spiritually dull and don’t seem to listen. 12 You have been believers so long now that you ought to be teaching others. Instead, you need someone to teach you again the basic things about God’s word. You are like babies who need milk and cannot eat solid food. 13 For someone who lives on milk is still an infant and doesn’t know how to do what is right. 14 Solid food is for those who are mature, who through training have the skill to recognize the difference between right and wrong.

Keeping a journal is a tangible exercise for developing the skill of “recognizing the difference between right and wrong” in our daily experience. Paying attention to our inner life helps us become more aware of our patterns of thought and reactivity. As clarity comes, we can surrender these to the Lord and actively embrace God’s grace for change. At the same time, the memory of God’s faithfulness fuels an attitude of praise and thanksgiving.

Second, our journal helps us clarify our priorities.

Life always seems at least a step or two ahead of us. It’s easy to lose control of our time and resources. The urgent always crowds out the important– and we seem powerless to stop the cycle of postponing things we really value because of demands that press down on us. I often turn to my journal as the key to unlock the shackles of the time trap. Reflection enables me to sort out what’s important. The commitments that clamor and crowd in on me lose some of their urgency in the light of my basic goals and values.

Your journal is that place where you put your plans for the day on paper– first thing– and then pray for God’s grace and mercy to guide your steps minute-by-minute. Of course, you will face surprises and interruptions– but you will feel empowered by being more intentional through the day. At the same time, a clear perception of the important matters awakens a new resolve to get on with it.

Third, our journal helps in problem-solving.

Conflicts, problems and disappointments are part of life. We consistently face dilemmas that require wisdom beyond ourselves. Writing crystallizes issues. C.S. Lewis said, “Whenever you are fed up with life, start writing. Ink is the great cure for all human ills, as I have found long ago.”

In the process of spiritual direction, I ask a person overwhelmed by the number of problems she/he has to write them down. A simple list helps them see the scope of the issues in a more orderly fashion. Most often, they find that the actual number of issues is less than they felt. As the dust settles and specific details become clear, prayer and careful thought often open ways to progress. Our journal gives us a safe place to develop scenarios, practice conversations, and listen for God’s direction. It’s truly amazing how God fulfills the promise of James 1:5 in the context of journaling.

 “If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking” (New Living Translation). 

When John began his profound experience with God, God commanded him “Write down what you have seen…” (Revelation 1:19). I believe God gives us the same call today. Just get a simple spiral notebook, put the date at the top of a page and begin writing a prayer, a letter to God, or a special memory of God’s work in your life. Remember, your “holy history” is too important to trust to memory alone.